“Wizards vs Aliens” creator Phil Ford talks about making leap from U.K. to U.S.

Wizards vs. Aliens
Saturday, June 1
Hub Network, 7pm ET

When they name a show Wizards vs Aliens, one question you really don’t have to ask is “Hey, what’s that about?” But the zippy series goes beyond its self-explanatory title and gives the creators of Doctor Who and Torchwood a chance to expand their strict sci-fi background and introduce a little fantasy into the mix.

Already a hit in the U.K., Wizards vs. Aliens will hit American shores this weekend with two back-to-back episodes on Hub Network, telling the story of Tom Clarke (Scott Haran), a 16-year-old who hides the fact that he’s a wizard from everyone except his best friend Benny Sherwood (Percelle Ascott). Together they work to repel the Nekross, a very wormy alien race that has come to Earth to collect magic. Also helping Tom is his seemingly batty aunt Ursula (Annette Badland), who acts as a family historian of sorts. The aliens themselves include a pair of siblings, the warlike Varg (Jefferson Hall) and the more cerebral, but still very much deadly, Lexi (Gwendoline Christie, Game of Thrones). The Nekross are led by a mammoth king voiced by legendary thespian Brian Blessed.

Phil Ford, who created the show with Russell T. Davies, took some time for a jovial Q&A about the series, writing for kids, and writing rules for magic:

Channel Guide Magazine: Wizards vs. Aliens. The title kinda says it all. How did you go about then filling in the blanks of the story, enough to fill out several seasons?

Phil Ford: (laughs) It literally was that to start with. Russell and I met for dinner to talk about the idea for a new series, because obviously we’d done Doctor Who and Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures, all of which are very much science-based. In the Doctor Who world there is no magic, and we kind of wanted to do something different. We wanted to do something that involved magic and the supernatural. Obviously, the elephant in the room was always Harry Potter, and finding a way to do a thing about wizards without it being Harry Potter in any way. I simply said, “Well, what about wizards versus aliens?” and that was it. That was all I’d got. We loved the idea, and then Russell had the genius idea that it would be aliens coming to Earth seeking magic, and we’d throw in that it’s about two boys, the friendship between two 16-year-old lads. That’s what it’s about, and the world kind of develops from there. But yeah, it all started with that simple, bald concept that it’s wizards versus aliens. Here we are now. The title itself was just magical in terms of getting the show commissioned relatively quickly, because everyone who heard the title kind of got it immediately.

CGM: Was there any trouble adjusting to younger audiences?

PF: Not really, because I’ve done all sorts of adult drama, as has Russell, and the way I look at it is you don’t necessarily think about writing a kids’ show. You just write a good show, a good story. The trick is you write a story that kids can understand. The last thing you want to do is write down to kids. In Sarah Jane, we were always determined that we would never write down to kids, because kids are sophisticated these days. Kids appreciate a story, I think, that thrills them, scares them a little bit, and challenges them. That was something that we did with a lot of the stories in Sarah Jane, and that we do in the stories with Wizards. There’s the whole spectrum of different kinds of stories that we tell in Wizards. The main thing about Wizards is that the stories are adventure, fun, colorful, but it’s got heart. We always want it to have heart, and there’s real emotion in these stories. Sometimes those stories are quite challenging. There are a couple toward the end of this first season that are actually quite dark and go kind of to unfamiliar territory for kids’ television, certainly over here in the UK. And we love that! We love being able to tell stories which kids can access, can enjoy, can get enthusiastic about, can play in the schoolyard, but at the same time also teach them about life.

CGM: There are some interesting rules in the show regarding magic. For instance, the idea that wizards can only cast three spells per day. Where did that idea come from?

PF: The danger with doing something about magic is that it can be all-powerful, and if you have a bunch of wizards who are defending the Earth against aliens, the first question you ask yourself is, “Well, why can’t they just conjure up a spell that just gets rid of all the aliens?” So that was really where the idea of the aliens have come to Earth for magic, because magic doesn’t repel them. Magic actually makes them stronger. So you can’t then use those spells against the aliens. You have to find another way of fighting them. Equally, you don’t want to make your wizards too strong and powerful, so that’s why we brought in the rule of three spells a day. That’s interesting, because if your wizard has an endless supply of spells, even if he can’t use magic directly against the Nekross, you kind of think he can come up with ways around that. But if they had an endless supply of magic, then that would become a bit boring. So there’s this element of jeopardy with our wizards as well, and my goodness what happens if they use up all of those spells? … Three is a magic number as well, and three is an important number in magic. It pops up all over the place. It’s all tied in there with the mythology of the show.

CGM: As you got further into establishing the mythology, were you able to add shading to the characters, where the good guys aren’t always so good, and the bad guys aren’t always bad? Or was the fact that it’s a kids’ show rein force you to keep it more black and white?

PF: Oh my goodness, no. There are all kinds of things going on here. When we first meet Tom, he’s a schoolboy who likes to play football and as we know isn’t averse to using a spell to score a goal. He’s a kid who loves the idea of magic but doesn’t necessarily buy into the responsibility that comes with magic, so we do have that arc where Tom is effectively growing up. There’s this great story toward the end of the first season … where Tom to steal a phrase is tempted toward the dark side. There’s a lot of light and shade with our characters. Ursula, who we see as this ditzy grandmother in the first episode, nevertheless has this ribbon of steel running through her. … In the penultimate story, we see yet another side to her, which is quite different. Still in character, but a really much darker side. That story itself is a very dark and challenging story. Those elements of light and shade are there equally with the Nekross. We didn’t want our aliens to just be two-dimensional bad guys. Whereas Varg is very much the shoot first-ask questions later, Lexi is the more cerebral sister, and Lexi becomes much more interested in the humans, and there’s a big story arc we play with Lexi that goes from Season 1 to Season 1.

CGM: Speaking of Lexi, you can’t see her under all that makeup, but it must be nice for you guys to have Gwendoline Christie in the cast now that she’s become known for Game of Thrones.

PF: Absolutely. When we were casting for this, I don’t think Game of Thrones had gone out yet. I’m starstruck every time I go into the set or on location with her — which I shall be doing tomorrow. I’m looking forward to seeing her. She’s a tremendous actress. I mean, our whole cast is wonderful. Couldn’t wish for a better one, and obviously Scott and Percy are just fabulous. They work so hard. They’re two young guys, haven’t done an awful lot of shows beyond this, and they’ve just taken to this show and committed to this show so much. They’ve taken it upon themselves. They really are great mates. You get that fantastic chemistry between the two of them.

CGM: You’re busy working on Season 2 of the show over in the U.K., but now that it’s coming here to the States, what has it been like  looking back on Season 1?

PF: It’s astonishing to think that this idea was born out of a fish dinner in Los Angeles, and here it is going back to America. We’re always ambitious in our ideas, but you never think, “Oh, yeah, we’ll come up with this kid’s show and then we’ll sell it into 50 territories around the world,” which is what Fremantle has done. So it’s tremendous. We just wanted to tell a great, fun adventure story, and that’s universal, which is why I think it will travel to America well, and travel indeed to all around the world where it’s been sold. … It’s a story about good versus evil, but it’s also stories about lots of other things, about friendship, about family, it’s about the wonders of the universe. There’s a lot for kids to sink their teeth into, we hope.

CGM: Just to finish up, I have to ask about working with Brian Blessed. That must be quite the experience.

PF: Oh, absolutely. Again, such a thrill. I go back so long with Brian Blessed with so many shows, having grown up with him basically. So having him in our show is just wonderful. I have to say that when we approached him he came back and was so enthusiastic about the show, about everything. Brian is generally an enthusiastic man. (laughs) He just loved the show and loved the idea and was so ready to just get into it. The recording sessions we do with Brian are just a joy. They take three times as long as they probably should, because he’s doing the work and then he’s telling you all of his wonderful stories. If you’ve never sat through a Brian Blessed story, you haven’t lived.


Scott Haran Percelle Ascott Wizards vs. Aliens Hub

Photo: Courtesy of Hub Network